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Experimenting with overwhelm

Friday, June 11, 2010 by Marianne Elliott

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I’ve been experimenting lately.

I’ve been experimenting with saying yes more often and allowing my life to fill to the brim again.

I say ‘again’ because there was a time, before Afghanistan, when my life was full to the brim all the time. By ‘full’ I mean packed rather than abundant, although sometimes they are the same thing.

In the old days, before Afghanistan, I woke up at 6.00 am every day. I met my friend Wendie at 6.30 am and we went for a 10 kilometre run. Before breakfast. Every day.

It seemed quite normal at the time. So did 12 hour work days, every day, social engagements most nights and a weekend schedule that had me out of bed by 7.00 am even on Sundays.

I lost a boyfriend because of this. Sweet guy. Tall, dark, handsome. An architect. Totally ready to get married and have babies. But my schedule drove him CRAZY. All the poor guy wanted was a sleep-in. Instead we broke up.

Anyway, the lovely Bindu Wiles didn’t need to talk to me for more than ten minutes on our first Skype call before she said to me:

“You’re one of those Type-A people aren’t you?”

I had to laugh. Because I am. Obviously.

And yet.

Afghanistan taught me that there is no rush. Afghanistan taught me the profoundly transformative power of sitting still and doing nothing. Afghanistan taught me that I’m not in control of nearly as much as I think I am.

Afghanistan taught me to slow down, sit still and listen.

When I first got back to New Zealand I kept living at my new pace. I was a full-time student but I made time to walk up Mt Victoria every morning to see the sun rise. I made time for long afternoon strolls with my childhood friend Bronwyn who had just got back from Southern Lebanon and who understood, like no-one else in New Zealand, the grief and trauma I had carried home with me.

I made time for coffees with friends, for daily yoga classes and afternoon naps. I made time to write in my journal and to meditate. I made time to write my book.

Then I took a job with Oxfam. I was still studying and still writing my book. I had also started teaching yoga.

Suddenly my life was very full again. Very, very full in a way that people who have worked for humanitarian organisations will understand.

Initially I loved it. But eventually I realised that what was being squeezed out of my life were the things that mattered most to me. I was kicking ass at Oxfam but my book wasn’t getting written and my yoga classes were suffering.

So I left. It wasn’t an easy decision. I loved the job and the people I was working with. I cared deeply about the work we were doing. Oh yeah, and we were in the middle of a HUGE recession.

But here is what I realised: there were other people who could do my job at Oxfam, but only I could write my book.

So I left Oxfam and for six months I taught yoga and wrote my book.

Along the way the 30 days of yoga course was born. I had no plan for it. I didn’t even realise what I was creating, or what was being created, when I asked my students and readers if they wanted to join me in a 30 day yoga sadhana. But I guess it was one of those things that was ready to be born.

Along the way I also finished my manuscript and found an agent. Fulfilling the first step of a life-long dream.

Along the way I taught yoga to my neighbours and became best friends with a little girl who would play me piano and dance for me when I visited. I made time to walk on the beach in the morning. I made time to bake casseroles for friends with new babies. I made time to meet friends for coffee or meditation.

Then I ran out of money.

I panicked a little bit. Having no money is a fear of mine. So I sent emails to everyone I’d ever worked with saying that I was available for contracts.

They all wrote back saying “Yes please!”

I said yes to them all. Three different contracts. Human rights and international development contracts. This was my dream! To be able to work as an independent human rights consultant and still have time to teach yoga and write books.

I also announced another round of 30 days of yoga.

I launched a new Off the Mat course here in Wellington.

I took on some private coaching clients.

I agreed to help a struggling not-for-profit come up with a new strategic plan.

I agreed to create a Yoga for Writers practice for Bindu’s amazing 21.5.800 project

I promised my sweetheart that I would help him bring his new business to life.

All while still teaching my regular yoga classes. And re-writing my book for the third time.

It’s not as though I didn’t realise what I was doing. I could see that I was filling my life up right to the very edge of what I knew I was capable of doing, and then nudging it just a little past that edge.

I saw it as an experiment. Could I fill my life back up to the brim without getting caught up in my old rigidity? Could I bring my new sense of ease and trust into this swirling fullness? Is there different way to be ‘busy’?

Last night I discovered that one way to be busy is to melt into tears. One way to be busy is to let it all overwhelm you for a while, float around in the deep water for a bit. One way is to cope is to not cope for a while.

After I’d had a bit of a cry I went out to teach my regular Thursday night yoga class. It was a lovely, lovely class. We did the Yoga for Writers practice that I put together for the 21.5.800 project. My sweetheart came and picked me up so that I didn’t have to walk or take the bus home. I treated myself to Indian takeaways. I had a bath. I went to bed early. I slept like a log.

This morning I decided that making this ‘fullness’ into an experiment is brilliant. It means that I don’t feel bad if I fall over. If I get overwhelmed, I can just raise one eyebrow and say:

“Hmmm. Interesting, so if I try to all of this and I don’t do that for a few days, I fall over. But if I have a bath and a good sleep I find myself quite restored. Hmmm. Very Interesting Indeed.”

As Havi would say, I can make a note in the ‘Book of Me’. *Licks her finger and makes a note to ensure the bath, takeaways and ride home happen a few days before the melting into a pool of tears next time*

Or maybe not.

Because the part when I dissolved into tears really didn’t hurt anyone. It gave one of my dearest friends the chance to remind me that she accepts me as I am, even when I’m messy and sniffly and not-quite-on-top-of-things. It gave my sweetheart the chance to show me how much he loves me (enough to overcome his strong aversion to burning fossil fuels in order to pick me up). It gave my yoga students the chance to remind me of the healing power of practicing in community.

And in the Book of Me, that’s not a bad thing at all.

PS: For the coming 30 days I’ll be pouring lots of my energy into the 30 days of yoga course. So there will be less posts here, but I’m sure I’ll have as much as usual to say over at Twitter. See you there, if that’s your thing.

If you missed out on the 30 days course and want to be sure to get plenty of notice about the next one, join my mailing list. People on my mailing list are my ‘Business Class’ passengers. You’ll be ushered to the front of the queue when registrations for the next 30 days of yoga open.


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25 Responses to "Experimenting with overwhelm"

  1. Wendie says:

    Love this entry, and I can understand this so much (I still miss our daily runs as crazy busy as we both were at the time!). I am feeling so so overwhelmed and melted in tears today, I just find I am not couragous enough to make the change I need to balance and find a better work environment, that fulfills me with what I need.

    But I have 9 weeks left of work before I stop to welcome our first baby and I am looking forward to that change very much.

    I like the idea of an experiement, at the end of day we learn from everything we do and every journey we go on.

    Lots of love, Wendie

  2. Bea says:

    I love you, Marianne. You deserve every last bit of this delicious overwhelm.

  3. Debbie says:

    Thanks for sharing this Marianne. I’ve been wondering how I burned out so quickly in my humanitarian job, wagging a finger at myself a bit for not making it beyond three years in an incredible position in a great post. I know what is most important is that I do what makes me happy and fulfills me long term. Your phrase about how full life becomes working for a humanitarian organization is helping me give myself more permission and acceptance today for leaving when I felt it was time for something new. Have fun with your experiment.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. As a fellow type A I struggle with overwhelm. I also struggle with ME and Fibromyalgia. Believe me if there is one thing that is guaranteed to encourage a Type A to make space in their lives it’s a good dose of Chronic Fatigue 😉

    It’s stange to say but the ME actually was a blessing in many ways because it made me find out what was important to me and what was enough. I’m still experimenting with that but I’m getting there. Slowly.

    See you on Twitter no doubt 🙂

  5. Mel says:

    You said to me this morning to be gentle. And I would just like to return this: Be gentle to yourself, ok?

    I have no doubt that you can do all of it though.

  6. Laura says:

    I love that! overwhelm gives people chances to help you. It’s true. last time this happened to me my friend came over and poured a shot of vodka in me, made me lie on the floor and paid attention to how well I was relaxing until I did. more recently I got a raise and some beach side property for practically nothing. and lots of nice food along the way.

    overwhelm is a regular part of my life – Thanks for making me see it like this 🙂

  7. Alexis Grant says:

    Love how you’re taking us along on this journey. We’ve molded similar paths for ourselves! I’m Type A, too, and right now my life is the slowest it’s ever been — writing my book, looking for jobs, spending time with family and friends (and stressing over not making money). I really miss the go-go-go of a full-time job. But I also recognize what I’m getting out of this down time. I’ve had more moments of appreciation, more time to realize what I want my life to be about. More time to read. To walk the dog. To babysit my best friend’s baby. These are the things I rush through when I’m working. It’s nice to have this perspective — I hope I remember my priorities once I start working again!

  8. amy says:

    your ideas around seeing things as an experiment have provided me with some lovely food for thought. thank you for sharing your experiences. your openness and all your wonderful hard work are truly inspiring.

  9. Swirly says:

    This is so powerful!! It is absolutely transformative to move away from judgment and towards observation (a la “…isn’t that interesting?”) As always, you are teaching me, and helping me hone my own journey towards a mindful life in which I can truly take all that I am given.

    *You are extraordinary.*

  10. Thank you so much for sharing this. I too am looking for ways to pack my days full of joy, purpose, play and rest amidst the busy-ness of the to do list. Following my bliss feels so good.

  11. i claimed the month of june to do a mindfulness cleanse. to pay attention to what i hunger for, spritually, physically, emotionally, and to respond to those hungers with love, not judgement. it is interesting, indeed.

    you are such a gift.


  12. You are brilliant indeed! And my God we are so in tune. Always sisters xoxox

  13. […] read Marianne’s blog post about filling up and spilling over. I read Bindu’s post. And many […]

  14. amypalko says:

    Gosh, this is so familiar, Marianne. I do exactly the same thing – completely over-commit to doing an outrageous number of things and then end up sobbing when it all gets too much.

    But I’m liking the concept of an experiment – might be just the reframe I need. I think it’s about finding a balance – a median where I can manage to get by and stay sane. Although I have a feeling this experiment may last a lifetime – lol!

  15. Helen says:

    Oh hon, it’s such a fine line all the time eh? I feel the same way often. Cut back to very little, then build it up again, each time I feel a little wiser like you xoxo

  16. Alexandra says:

    You’re one of the most authentic bloggers out there-thank you. Reading about your days what I saw was someone with such a mutual joy of life and sense of responsibility to yourself and to others to maximize to the fullest each day, and realizing, depending on the circumstances and moment, that sometimes the best gift you give yourself is sitting still. When I look back on my own travels, it’s my quietest, calmest moments that often stand out because I was so very present, appreciative, and open. I’m glad you followed your heart! Your writing and spirit are blessings.

  17. Lubna says:

    Hugs from across the seas. See you whenever you pop up on this blog again. Take care.

  18. Alana says:

    I love the notion of the experiment. It feels lighter. Transformative. Mind if I borrow it for my life?

  19. laura says:

    thank you for this inspirational post! i think I’m at the same point you were when you worked with Oxfam…I love my job with the UN but somehow I feel like I am missing out on something…problem is, I still haven’t found yet what this other ‘thing’ is…though perhaps I’m just not giving myself enough time and space to explore…hmmmm

  20. Julia says:

    You are awesome! I can relate and I love the mindfulness and perspective you have on overfilling life (and that feeling of overwhelm).

    Look after yourself, try not to experiment too much with overwhelm and maximum filled up life – it’s rather exhausting if it becomes a regular state of being! : )

    Have a great week,

  21. Juliana says:

    “there were other people who could do my job at Oxfam, but only I could write my book. ”

    This hit me so hard just now, you have no idea.

    Thank you for sharing your journey with us along the 21*5*800 project. It is refreshing and wonderful to know that even our Fearless Leaders are not entirely fearless.


  22. […] keeping myself busy hanging out with my fabulous 30 days of yoga peeps, rewriting my book and doing a few other things. But I will be back here early next week with an interview (and then a Twitter chat) with a really […]

  23. Gosia says:

    Hi Marianne, wow just stumbled across your website and wanted to leave a message to let you know that you are a very inspiring woman. I also have trouble sitting still and fill every waking hour with work, friends and generally been too hard on myself in the fear of underachieving. Hope to start coming along to your yoga classes in Wlgt soon. Yoga is changing my life …. slowly …. but the transformation in there. Keep up the amazing work. Speak soon …. Gosia x

  24. […] schedule recently has been more full than usual (I’ve been experimenting with overwhelm and although I’ve been able to maintain my own practice at home I’ve had to drop out of my […]

  25. Hannah says:

    You are wise, Ms. Elliot.

    Thank you for this.

    All the love in the world,


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